The Blount County Commission voted 18-1, with two commissioners absent from Thursday's meeting, to adopt the certified property tax rate of $2.04 per $100 of assessed value, dropping it from the current $2.23 rate. To make up for the decrease, money will be taken from the General County Fund and the Debt Service funds.
Finance director Steve Jennings said this would take the Debt Service fund from about $13 million to less than $10 and would take the General County Fund (Rainy Day Fund) from $7.7 million to $3.6 million.
Jennings said the only way to make up the losses is by cutting spending or raising taxes. “We’re basically delaying the inevitable,” he said.
Jennings broke down the $2.04 this way: Blount County schools budget receives $1, the General County Fund receives 66 cents and Debt Services, 38 cents.
“This funds the schools at $76.74 million and allows them to avoid layoffs and hire back 16 of the 50 positions eliminated due to attrition, meaning 34 positions will be left unfilled. About $3.6 million comes from General County Fund and $3.5 million is taken from Debt Service fund for total amount of about $7 million,” he said. “In my opinion, it puts the General County Fund way too low.”
During brief discussion about setting the tax rate, Commissioner Bob Proffitt attempted to add an amendment to set the rate at $2.15 per $100 of assessed value to have enough money to finish and open Prospect School, now under construction in Seymour. “To adopt the certified rate would be turning our backs on the children of this school,” he said.
Proffitt’s motion died for lack of a second. With commissioners Mike Walker and Brad Harrison absent, the final vote was 18 for the rate, one (Proffitt) against it.
When it came time to pass the budget, Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves made a motion that commissioners’ pay be reduced 10 percent. The amendment passed with commissioners John Keeble, Gary Farmer, Steve Hargis and Kenneth Melton voting no.
Commissioners, who are paid $450 a month, will lose $45 of pay, dropping the stipend to $405 a month.
In discussions on a resolution supporting School Resource Officers, Proffitt moved that the number of SROs be reduced. “I’d like to see us discontinue having SROs in the elementary school. There does seem to be justification at the middle schools and high schools where confrontations seem more likely to occur,” Proffitt said, “but $400,000 expense is just not justified considering the very poor risk.”
The motion died for lack of a second. Commissioner David Graham addressed the motion after vote. “This is an issue for the school board to take up,” he said. “The money is appropriated to the schools for security.”
During “Input for Items Not on the Agenda, Commissioner Melton suggested that residents who are upset that elected officials are spending too much should approach them about their individual offices’ budgets. “I have one suggest, tell the office holders if you want them to cut their budgets,” he said. “We don’t have that power,” he said.
After the meeting, Graham reminded those in the packed audience area that commissioners understand the effect of the down economy on them. “There’s a lot of criticism of my fellow commissioners but I want to remind you, this commissioner implemented the property tax freeze for seniors,” he said. “It’s not like when you came to us it fell on deaf ears.”
Pitts Reeves said after the meeting she hoped that all commissioners and not just the budget committee take time next year to meet with department heads and elected office holders to explore ways to be more efficient. “I suggest we might save jobs by looking at employee benefits because that’s where so many of our costs are, but we could just as easily look at communication, fuel, travel and energy costs,” she said.
Holden Lail said commissioners understand how tough it is for residents. “We’ve worked hard to get this tax rate down. We understand what people are going through, and we realize they also have needs and services that need to be met.”
Jennings said it has been a learning experience preparing this year’s budget and property tax rate. “Coming from private industry, everyday is a learning experience,” he said. “The processes are different, and there are a lot of different motivations.”